Liberals push radical agenda

A think tank close to president Medvedev has released a report recommending a radical overhaul of Russia’s political system, Federal Security Service and Interior Ministry, and a reappraisal of relations with Nato and the EU.

But have the thinkers come up with anything more than a liberal wish list?

The report from the Institute for Contemporary Development paints a future that looks like a liberal’s dream: a multi-party democracy; a genuinely free press; the FSB and the Interior Ministry humbled; and an unashamedly Western-orientated foreign policy. It also raises obvious comparisons with the policies and ideals of the Nineties. And although President Dmitry Medvedev chairs the institute’s board of trustees, he is more likely to distance himself from the political albatross of the Yeltsin era than to embrace the report’s findings.

The report’s authors start from the traditional liberal premise that there can be no development of a modern economy – especially the “innovation economy” championed by both Mr Medvedev and his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – without an open political society. For Russia’s liberals, it is the lack of political competition in Russia that underpins its widespread corruption and lack of business transparency.

For an economy seeking to wean itself off commodities exports to become “innovative,” the monochrome political landscape with its “elements of neo-feudalism and archaic institutions” are crippling. “Only a free person is capable of inventing something new,” Igor Yurgens, the vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and one of the report’s authors, told journalists. And, as Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre pointed out, even those who do not agree with this liberal premise agree that the current economic model has to change. “The model of economic growth that relied on energy exports worked extremely well for a few years, but – as some predicted – it has exhausted itself. Both Medvedev and Putin recognise that.”

In politics, the authors envisage a multi-party system formed around two rival parties, one of the centre-left and another of the centre-right. Communists and right-wing populists would be pushed to the political margins, and the state would relinquish its control of the media.

To ensure transparency, major institutions would also undergo dramatic reform. The FSB, so often accused of wielding disproportionate influence in politics, would be broken up into counter-espionage and counter-terrorist agencies; the Interior Ministry, currently rocked by police brutality and corruption scandals, would be split up and decentralised; the bribe-taking traffic police force would disappear; and the army would be slashed from 1.1m mostly conscripted troops to between 500,000 and 600,000 professional soldiers.

As for foreign policy, Russia would embrace every kind of international grouping open to it, from the World Trade Organisation to the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe. In the long term, it would consider membership of the European Union and “conclude negotiations” with Nato, but not necessarily join. “We never said ‘join’: we said Russia should conclude its negotiations with Nato,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Institute for Contemporary Development.

Both Gontmakher and Yurgens insist that their vision is long term. The problem is that it lacks clear policy measures; Russia’s aversion to anything associated with the Nineties and Yeltsin is another. But by far the greatest problem is that, even if the powers that be come to accept the liberal economic premise the idea is based on, they have good reasons to resist it. “The problem at the moment is that any of these reforms means relinquishing power and reducing the role of the state,” said Lipman. “And that would undermine the position of the current decision-makers.

“If it were meant as a practical recommendation for the government, the report would be ‘step one’. But if they thought Medvedev would even listen to them, they’d probably be advising him in private, and would not say this in public.”

Perhaps so. But the authors themselves played down their links to the president. “He’s a politician, and as a politician I doubt he’ll say what he thinks,” said Gontmakher. “But it’s not really for the president: above all, it’s for society. We want to start a discussion.”

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